The Curse

The Curse

Director: Kôji Shiraishi

Writers: Kôji Shiraishi, Naoyuki Yokota

Original title: Noroi

Cast: Jin Muraki, Rio Kanno, Tomono Kuga

Japan 2005

115 mins

The Blair Witch Project (1999) might have made millions and become a milestone in the history of cinema, but it didn’t inspire a great many films worth watching. Although spoofs and knock-offs proliferated quickly, it wasn’t until the rise of reality TV and cheap, readily available digital cameras that the format started producing interesting results, including [Rec] (2007) and its sequels (and to a lesser extent the US remake), George A. Romero’s Diary of the Dead (2007), Cloverfield (2008), the Paranormal Activity films, and most recently André Øvredal’s Troll Hunter (2010). Released in 2005, Kôji Shiraishi’s The Curse (Noroi) predates all these, but strictly speaking it does not belong with the ‘found footage’ films. Instead, it’s the conceptual descendant of the BBC’s notorious 1992 Ghostwatch Halloween Special, in which another trashy ‘celebrity in a haunted house’ TV show began documenting real phenomena, both on location and in the studio. With millions of viewers convinced they were watching a live television broadcast, Ghostwatch attracted acclaim and outrage in equal proportion when the deception was finally revealed. The Curse is presented as the final work of Masafumi Kobayashi (Jin Muraki), a reporter and filmmaker who specialises in documenting - rather than debunking - supernatural and occult phenomena. After finishing his latest investigation, Kobayashi disappeared and his wife died, leaving behind only the almost finished documentary and a few minutes of unseen footage - apparently shot on the night he disappeared - as a possible clue.

Kobayashi’s documentary begins with the disappearance of a possibly unhinged single mother and her introverted young son, but before long he is drawn into a world of psychic children, alien religious rituals, gruesome sacrifices, a surplus of dead pigeons, an insane visionary clad in a tin foil hat and coat, and the root cause of it all, a town that now sits at the bottom of an artificial lake. Most of the footage is shot by Kobayashi and his unseen cameraman, but the narrative is also supported by extracts from the television news and a number of clips drawn from TV shows that introduce key characters and highlight their connections to the world of the supernatural. After Kobayashi, the most important character is actress and part-time psychic Marika Matsumoto, star of Takashi Shimizu’s Reincarnation (Rinne, 2005), and one of several guests playing themselves. Following a trip to a supposedly haunted shrine as part of a TV show, Marika finds herself becoming the focus of a steadily escalating series of supernatural events, including half-glimpsed figures on the TV footage, bizarre sleepwalking incidents and a growing number of pigeons that commit suicide by hurling themselves against her windows. As she grows increasingly frightened, Kobayashi realises there is a connection between the story he is pursuing and Marika’s otherworldly experiences.

As in a great deal of contemporary Japanese horror, much of the material in The Curse reflects the Japanese fascination with all things mysterious and unexplainable, from the occult to urban legends. The fake TV show clips that Shiraishi uses to add authenticity work mainly because they’re exceptionally realistic. Shows that test the psychic abilities of a class of schoolchildren have been seen on Japanese television, complete with tacky graphics and multi-coloured subtitles. Rising starlets like Marika Matsumoto - and Maria Takagi, who also appears - often end up as panel guests or celebrity interviewers. They might only be on screen for seconds, but you can also spot noted horror author Hiroshi Aramata, popular TV host and former AV star Ai Iijima and comedy duo The Ungirls. Wisely, Shiraishi avoids allowing these cameo appearances to dominate their scenes and distract from the main characters and the supernatural events.

Shiraishi’s approach has a definite advantage over Blair Witch-style ‘found footage’; by presenting his footage as part of a documentary, the director is free to edit, manipulate and process the material as much as he likes, in order to achieve the necessary effect. This is most apparent in the disembodied, multi-layered baby cries that can frequently be heard, as well as the muted thuds of pigeons hitting windows. Digital manipulation allows Shiraishi to insert the briefly seen ghostly figures and twisted faces that appear throughout the film. However, these are not the half-glimpsed phantoms found in Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s Pulse (Kairo, 2001); because The Curse is supposed to be a documentary, when such images or phenomena are caught on film the footage is sometimes replayed and analysed, reducing its impact on the viewer. Despite this, Shiraishi leaves a great deal unexplained - the pigeons, for example, or the knots - and simply allows the cumulative effect of all the horror and grotesquery to speak for itself. There’s no need for him to explicitly describe the rituals taking place since the implications are clear and the viewer’s imagination can fill in the less-than-pleasant details.

The same applies to the film’s final sequence, which is presented in full with no edits, overdubs or modifications. Without the director’s own commentary it isn’t completely clear what happens in the minutes prior to Kobayashi’s disappearance and the death of his wife, but this ambiguous conclusion is entirely appropriate for a film that documents a wealth of supernatural phenomena without managing to explain any of them. There is a slight misstep before the end, however. Like almost every found-footage film, there comes a time when one character ignores his own safety (and that of his companions) to pick up the camera and start filming. Realistically, such individuals would either run or assist their friends; preserving the event for posterity would probably not rank highly on most people’s list of priorities, selfish or otherwise. That minor glitch aside, The Curse is one of the best of its kind, competing easily with The Blair Witch Project and The Last Broadcast (1998) and considerably better than Cloverfield or the Paranormal Activity series, including the made-in-Japan alternate sequel Paranormal Activity 2: Tokyo Night (2010). Unlike Tokyo Night, The Curse is a terrific example of the kind of atmospheric, well-composed horror films that Japan became famous for in the wake of Hideo Nakata’s Ring (1998).

Director Kôji Shiraishi has been an active figure in the world of low-budget Japanese horror since the early 2000s. He cut his teeth on the prolonged V-cinema (direct-to-video) Hontô ni atta! Noroi no bideo series before contributing to a clip show called Nihon no kowai yoru, released in the West as Dark Tales of Japan. This made-for-TV anthology project gave Shiraishi the opportunity to work alongside some of Japan’s most famous horror directors and with Takashige Ichise, the driving force behind Ring (1998) and the Ju-on series, who went on to produce The Curse. Although widely considered to be the director’s best work, it has yet to be released in Western countries, despite the continued interest in atmospheric Japanese horror. Shiraishi would visit the same genre territory again a number of times, including in Shirome (2010), which features real pop group Momoiro Clover exploring fake sites of supernatural interest, and the serial killer investigation Occult (2009). Neither has been released in an English-language version yet. Recently Shiraishi’s career has been overshadowed by the controversy surrounding his notorious ‘torture-porn’ effort Grotesque (2009), which was refused a certificate from the BBFC, effectively banning its release or screening in the United Kingdom.

Jim Harper

Punishment Park

Punishment Park

Format: Dual Format (DVD + Blu-ray)

Release date: 23 January 2011

Distributor: Eureka Entertainment

Director: Peter Watkins

Writer: Peter Watkins

Cast: Patrick Boland, Kent Foreman, Carmen Argenziano

USA 1971

88 mins

All you non-conformists, step this way.

The Vietnam War is intensifying. Nixon is ordering bombing missions on the Laos-Cambodian border and civic unrest is reaching new heights with violent demonstrations in the inner cities and on the university campuses. A pair of documentary crews, one from West Germany and one from Great Britain, follow two groups of detainees. One (group 637) is being processed through a tribunal, while the other, having already chosen the option of Punishment Park over significantly long prison sentences, is finding out just exactly what Punishment Park is.

Peter Watkins had already made his reputation as a provocateur with his Wednesday Play The War Game in 1965, which was banned by the BBC for 20 years. Punishment Park, released in 1971, is in many ways just as incendiary. The pseudo-documentary style is complemented by the improvisational techniques that Watkins employed. It allows Watkins to portray a topical moment of confrontation (Kent State Massacre was in 1970 and the Chicago 7 trial began in 1968), but it also seems part of the point that America is dangerously improvising with its own polity and identity. Throughout the film there is a radical sense of people making stuff up as they go along. This goes for the activists, who are a melange of counter-culture figures, from an obvious Bobby Seale stand-in, to a poet who looks like Allen Ginsberg and a Joan Baez-style protest singer. But it is also true for the kangaroo court that tries them and the police and National Guard, who are never quite sure of what their role is supposed to be. The media are also included in this free-for-all. The documentary filmmakers are complicit in giving the legal procedure legitimacy as well as producing a striking warning not to fuck with the government. Their protests are feeble — ‘you bloody bastards’ — and largely ignored by the trigger-happy police who, anticipating criticism of Watkins’s own origins, point out their outsider status: ‘why don’t you go back to Europe?’

Tension mounts in the film as it becomes increasingly clear that the Punishment Park experience is not about education or rehabilitation but is a cynical sadistic game, similar to something out of Pasolini’s Salí², or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975), an experience the prisoners have little hope of surviving. To add to the tension, the soundtrack is dominated by the incessant sounds of gunfire and passing fighter jets in the background. This is America: constant bitter and angry argument with a clear and present threat of heavyweight and disproportionate military violence.

It would be a stretch to say that Watkins is in any way even-handed - his is a bitter and a furious film of denunciation. The court is composed of recognisable faces from the news, sociologists, a housewives-of-America spokeswoman for the Silent Majority, a big union man and politicians. They are easily hissable straw men and their depiction is the weakest element in the film. And yet the film does allow for some ambiguity. It is the prisoners who draw first blood, when some of them decide that they won’t follow the rules of their own punishment and ambush and kill a policeman. What we end up watching then is perhaps the tragedy of 60s radicalism, which saw street fighting pitching middle-class radicals against often working-class police and soldiers, to the great relief of the ruling class.

Listen to the Electric Sheep I’m Ready For My Close-Up programme on Peter Watkins with BFI archive curator William Fowler on Friday 20 January, 5-5:30pm, Resonance 104.4FM.

John Bleasdale



Format: Cinema

Dates: 20 January 2012

Venues: Key cities

Distributor: BFI Distribution

Director: Jean Vigo

Writers: Jean Guinée, Albert Riéra, Jean Vigo

Cast: Dita Parlo, Jean Dasté, Michel Simon

France 1934

89 mins

L’atalante was made in the most difficult of circumstances: the director, the 28-year-old Jean Vigo, was critically ill, the weather was abysmal, the budget was tiny, and the distributors thought the finished film worthless. They re-cut it, chopped out nearly 25 minutes of footage, and added a sentimental ballad to increase popular appeal. Unsurprisingly, it languished in obscurity until an original print was re-discovered in 1989 and restored to glory. Because it is glorious as well as witty, strange and beautiful, the fruits of a collaboration that director of photography Boris Kaufman (who went to Hollywood, and worked on On the Waterfront, Baby Doll, 12 Angry Men) described as ‘cinematic paradise’.

The story of L’atalante is a simple one: two newly-weds, a barge captain and a village girl, start their new life on the Seine. Passionately in love, they nonetheless find life tricky. The luminous Dita Parlo, who plays Juliette, craves the excitement of city life; the handsome Jean Dasté is staid and jealous as Jean. They fight, make up, and then Jean abandons Juliette when she sneaks off to Paris, and sails the barge (the Atalante of the title) away; but both are heart-broken by the separation. Vigo and Kaufman make it magical, ethereal and romantic (with a haunting score by Maurice Jaubert), but with dashes of surrealism and social realism.

L’atalante opens with the wedding, which has all the solemnity and sorrow of a funeral. Jean and Juliette wander across fields towards the barge, followed by the villagers dressed in black. On the barge the anarchic Père Jules (Michel Simon), with his coterie of kittens and cats, and the cabin boy (Louis Lefebvre) are getting things ready for the bride. Juliette lands on the cargo hoist and in the passionate embraces of Jean, with fog enshrouding the boat.

And then life begins in earnest, with Juliette getting to grips with a year’s worth of dirty laundry, and negotiating the masculine territory in the claustrophobic confines of the barge. Père Jules is initially suspicious, but when Juliette visits his cabin of curiosities, jammed with musical boxes, broken automata and bric-&#224-brac from his travels (including a jar that contains the hands of his best mate - ‘it’s the only thing I have left of him’) the tattooed old salt and the young bride form a touching alliance (a friendship that sends Jean into a frenzy). It’s Père Jules who rescues Juliette from Paris, where she’s washed up in a rundown hotel called The Anchor and working in a musical shop, wistfully listening to songs about sailors and water.

Juliette’s Depression-era Paris is initially intriguing, but it rapidly turns into a nightmare. Life is equally miserable for Jean on the barge. In an erotically charged scene the separated lovesick couple feverishly dream of each other, covered in darting spots from the film filters. It’s a beautiful example of Vigo’s inventiveness, a single instance of a treasure chest of images, from the beautiful underwater spectacle where Jean attempts to see a vision of his true love, to a witty little vignette where Père Jules runs his fingernail along the groove of a record and hears music playing. He bewilderingly repeats the gesture until the camera pans back and reveals the mischievous cabin boy playing the accordion. It’s a joyous flight of fancy, touchingly emblematic of the film itself.

Eithne Farry


AFR poster

Format: DVD

Distributor: Sandrew Metronome

Director: Morten Hartz Kaplers

Writers: Morten Hartz Kaplers, Allan Milter Jakobsen

Cast: Kofi Annan, Anders Fogh Rasmussen, Reimer Bo Christensen, Morten Hartz Kaplers

Denmark 2007

83 mins

Politics has, surprisingly, not been a target for the mockumentary as often as one might imagine, with the TV mini-series Tanner ’88, detailing the run for president by a fictitious candidate, and the made-for-TV movie The Death of a President, imagining the assassination of George W. Bush, the most easily recalled. The opportunities afforded for satire, scandal-mongering and provocation would appear to be a goldmine for filmmakers and television directors but it remains a largely untapped source of inspiration. One intriguing big screen take on the political mockumentary came out of Denmark in 2007: Morton Hartz Kaplers’s AFR - the initials of the then Danish PM and now Secretary General of NATO, Anders Fogh Rasmussen - was another what-if assassination scenario. Perhaps best suited to television, with nothing particularly ‘cinematic’ to warrant seeing it on the silver screen, AFR is as a whole somewhat underwhelming: its depiction of Rasmussen’s assassination and the subsequent search for his killer, thought to be his secret gay lover Emil, played by Hartz Kaplers himself, runs out of steam after a promising set-up. And yet in its deft interweaving of factual footage and staged scenes to comment on the Machiavellian world of politics, media intrusion, the age of celebrity, voyeurism and the nature of documentaries themselves, it feels like the natural successor, in terms of construction at least, to the work of Peter Watkins.

AFR is conventional in structure, pretending to be an after-the-event investigative exposé of the incidents leading up to Rasmussen’s murder and the potential identity of the culprit. It uses staged talking head interviews with fake politicians, friends and family members of both Rasmussen and Emil, footage from interviews with actual politicians (taken out of context to suit Hartz Kaplers’s narrative), images from the N&#248rrebro squat riots of the 90s and a damaging scandal involving Rasmussen early in his political career to paint a fictionalised portrait of the two ‘lead characters’ and Danish society as a whole. Alternative lifestyles, conspiracy theories, the war on terror, the anti-globalisation movement and political cover-ups all play a part in AFR‘s narrative, and figures such as Kofi Annan and George W. Bush crop up alongside the extensive footage of Rasmussen, in office and being grilled by the media, which has been corralled into this, for Danes at least, controversy-baiting alternative universe. An added murder-mystery element is introduced into proceedings as Emil, a troubled, volatile and independent thinker, is first fingered as the assassin before appearing to be the fall guy in an unresolved conspiracy reaching right into the heart of the Danish political elite.

Although AFR was branded as exploitative and in bad taste prior to its release, in much the same way as The Death of a President was, Hartz Kaplers’s mock-doc won the Tiger Award at the 2007 Rotterdam International Film Festival. Rather than being an attack on its titular subject, it makes political hypocrisy, media manipulation and social divides its real targets. It may be a minor piece but it’s an intriguing exercise in sound, image and history manipulation that, along with crime series Forbrydelsen (The Killing) and the hard-hitting Afghanistan war documentary Armadillo, which in their own ways both investigate and comment upon Danish politics, forms part of a provocative trilogy exploring the country’s recent past.

Neil Mitchell


Tatsumi (Hell)

Format: Cinema

Dates: 13 January 2012

Venues: Key cities

Distributor: Soda Pictures

Director: Eric Khoo

Based on the work of: Yoshihiro Tatsumi

Singapore 2011

94 mins

Manga veteran Yoshiro Tatsumi is probably best known, if he is known at all, to Western readers as the creator of The Push Man and Abandon the Old in Tokyo, two translated volumes of his 60s and 70s gekiga stories, and A Drifting Life, a fat and fascinating, if frustrating, graphic biography. Gekiga (‘dramatic pictures’) was a genre created by Tatsumi and others in the late 60s, as they began to write and draw darker, more adult tales about contemporary Japanese life, departing from the children’s fantasy adventures that dominated the medium. Tatsumi’s classic tales, created while Japan was going through a period of rapid economic growth, reveal a downside to the boom, usually concentrating on the alienated and ground-down, the anxious and desperate beset by warped sexual obsessions, degradation at the workplace and humiliation at home. Tatsumi gleaned story ideas from grim tabloid shock stories and turned them into sweaty, angsty little dramas of unwanted foetuses and unrequited desire in brushy, grubby black and white.

Singaporean director Eric Khoo’s animated feature takes five of these stories and brings them to life with admirable fidelity. ‘Hell’ tells of a photographer whose shot of a moment of familial tenderness amid the horrors of Hiroshima brings him fame and admiration, until the horrible truth catches up with him. ‘Beloved Monkey’ details the downward spiral of a factory worker. The gentler, wryer ‘Just a Man’ deals with an ageing company man on the verge of retirement trying to blow his money on women rather than let his lousy family get to it. ‘Occupied’ almost comes as light relief as a desperate manga artist brings about his own ruination through an obsession with bathroom graffiti. And the devastating ‘Goodbye’ tells the sordid tale of a prostitute and her deadbeat dad in the aftermath of the Second World War. All are computer-animated lifts from the original art, augmented with scratchy, grainy filters, a black blizzard of dot tones and shaken and shocked camera effects. They have claustrophobic soundtracks and vocal work (most Tatsumi tales are dominated by male monologues) from Tetsuya Bessho and Tatsumi himself.

The five tales are appropriately scuzzy in places, recalling the forceful, hard-boiled crudity of Phil Mulloy’s cartoons (this is a compliment!), and recreate the original manga’s atmosphere of downbeat delirium most effectively. They serve as a pretty fine introduction to the man’s work, which I love, but I have to say I’d understand anyone who felt after this that they’d seen all they want to see. Tatsumi’s work was originally consumed in periodical form, in magazines surrounded by other varied material. Read or watched en masse by itself, it can seem a little overwhelming, too many songs in the same doomy chords.

Perhaps this is why Khoo decided to break up the stories with material taken from the autobiography A Drifting Life, wherein our titular creator, feeling glum after the death of his lifelong inspiration Osamu Tezuka, reflects on his impoverished childhood and the struggles he had progressing as an artist in the rocky world of pulp publishing. This is mostly fascinating stuff (well, it is if you’re a cartoonist), but it feels inadequate to explain the singular nature of the tales it’s interwoven with. A Drifting Life was an 8oo-page monster, which has been filleted here for little scraps, fractured moments that are entertaining enough but feel like far less than the full story. Worse, all the linking stuff looks bloody horrible in washy, blobby colour; where the story sections made a virtue of their roughness, their monochrome limitations, the colour stuff just looks cheap and nasty.

There is also a growing, crunching mismatch between the wistful, sentimentalised autobio stuff and the transgressive confrontational tales. We see the young Tatsumi have an awkward, fairly innocent, erotic encounter with a girl as a callow youth in the big city, and later witness the twisted sexual minefield of ‘Goodbye’ and wonder what the hell happened. A gulf opens up between the extraordinary tales and the simple workaday life as depicted, a gulf Tatsumi and Khoo seem to have no interest in filling in either book or film. A scene near the end of Tatsumi has the ageing manga-ka walking past characters from his tales and waxing nostalgic about all the worlds he has created while a pretty melody rings out on the soundtrack. The scene seems to belong to a film about Disney, or Tolkien, or Tezuka, a creator of Narnia rather than a chronicler of incest and existentialism. He smiles as a familiar monkey climbs up onto his shoulder, maybe we’re supposed to smile too, but we’ve just seen what happens to that monkey, and it’s far from pleasant.

Highly recommended for the graphically inclined, worthwhile viewing for the curious, now check out the books.

Mark Stafford

Margin Call

Margin Call

Format: Cinema

Dates: 13 January 2012

Venues: UK wide

Distributor: Stealth Media

Director: J.C. Chandor

Writers: J.C. Chandor

Cast: Zachary Quinto, Kevin Spacey, Paul Bettany, Stanley Tucci, Demi Moore, Jeremy Irons

USA 2011

107 mins

Based loosely on the sudden demise of Lehman Brothers and set over a 24-hour period, the writer and director J. C. Chandor’s Margin Call is a nuanced, intriguing look at the actions and events that led to the bank’s implosion and to the wider, global financial crisis. In 2008, the collapse of the sub-prime market had roiled Wall Street, forcing banks to cull employees in mass layoffs. Arriving at work as usual, Eric Dale (Stanley Tucci), a senior executive in the risk management department, is led into a fish bowel of a meeting room, where he is unceremoniously offered his redundancy package before being escorted from the building. But just as the elevator doors close, he sees one of his junior employees, Peter Sullivan (played by Zachary Quinto, also one of the film’s producers); Dale hands him a memory stick with a request to look at his unfinished work, and a more ominous warning to be careful.

The research contained on the memory stick proves to be lethal to the bank’s fortunes. By the time that the junior analyst has convinced his superiors that the data is correct, leading to a series of emergency midnight-hour meetings, the over-leveraged, under-capitalised bank is already on its knees - it’s only a question of when the rest of the world finds out. Gliding through the neon-lit Manhattan streets in the back of a limo with another analyst, Seth Bregman (Penn Badgley), Sullivan (originally a scientist and easily smarter than his superiors) marvels at the blissfully oblivious crowds.

Audiences looking for an anti-capitalist polemic will be disappointed. While the arrogance of the men at the very top is breathtaking, the director tries hard to portray his characters as realistically as possible (mostly avoiding the slick glamour that usually stands in for Wall Street), and sometimes even sympathetically - something that will no doubt draw criticism from some of the banker-bashing public. The first-time director has pulled together an impressive ensemble cast, who serve as a microcosm for the breadth of personalities that populate the financial world. Penn Badgley captures the cockiness of the junior analyst who’s only in it for the money, constantly speculating about what the senior staff are paid; he later ends up crying painfully in a toilet stall when he realises that his career is already over, his ambitions shattered. Demi Moore is surprisingly well cast as the very serious, stern and professional lone woman, who is sacrificed to protect the men higher up the food chain. Jeremy Irons is pitch-perfect as the assured, aloof CEO John Tuld, whose misplaced self-belief has blinded him to his own imminent end, as he brings down his bank by insisting that they flood the markets with their toxic assets.

Chandor has done an excellent job keeping the film accessible without dumbing down, offering insights into the culture that caused the collapse while putting a human face on some of the players (there is no shortage of reviews on the internet criticising the film for exactly this). The often repeated description of the film as a ‘financial thriller’ is pretty close to the mark - it’s a smart, entertaining film, and an impressive debut from the director.

Sarah Cronin

Double Take: Shame


Format: Cinema

Dates: 13 January 2012

Venues: UK wide

Distributor: Momentum Pictures

Director: Steve McQueen

Writers: Abi Morgan, Steve McQueen

Cast: Michael Fassbender, Carey Mulligan, James Badge Dale

UK 2011

101 mins

Two of our writers share their views on Shame in a double take review of one of the most anticipated films of the year.


Steve McQueen’s second film, after his astonishing debut Hunger, surely places him at the forefront of British cinema. Despite McQueen’s day job as a renowned video artist, there is no tricksy-ness to his film, no radical inventiveness. Rather, his images reveal his artistic validity by dint of patience. Shots are held. We don’t watch this film, we stare at it. The tale itself could easily be a soap opera melodrama: Brandon (Michael Fassbender) is a successful urbanite living an almost antiseptically perfect life in Manhattan, which is put at risk by his compulsive sex addiction and by a visit from his messy (but altogether more conventionally promiscuous) sister, Sissy, played with thrift store charm by the ubiquitous Carey Mulligan. So far, so sensationalist, as we see the would-be Michael Douglas being serviced by high-end prostitutes, prowling the streets and bars, and masturbating with painful frequency. His inability to look at a woman without immediate sexual desire makes his sister’s visit uncomfortable, if not dangerously complicated. This is not only sex without love, it is sex that is mutually exclusive to love, the opposite of intimacy. And yet, at the same time, as Hunger eschewed straightforward political argument, so Shame, despite its title, avoids a merrily reductive morality. Fassbender’s performance is at once comic and tragic, ferocious and sensitive, strange but remarkably common, the brutal buffoonery of the male face in orgasm. John Bleasdale


One of the most talked about films on last year’s festival circuit, Steve McQueen’s Shame could have been a great movie. While Fassbender puts in a terrifically compelling performance, Mulligan is given much less to work with - her character is the ditsy, manic-depressive blonde, needy and demanding, desperate for attention, leaving endless messages for men that she’s slept with, not understanding that all they wanted from her was sex. While she has a few great scenes - and one in particular, already notorious - her character is a cliché that’s been seen and done before. Predictability is the problem with the film as a whole. The nearly wordless opening and closing scenes that bookend the film are incredibly powerful, but there are times when the dialogue is frustratingly flat, and the depiction of corporate New York and its club scene are too reminiscent of the early 90s and American Psycho. There is real tension in the tormented relationship between Brandon and Sissy, while his uncontrollable, violent outbursts are a shock, but the screenplay just isn’t quite strong enough to make the whole a truly remarkable film - what’s frustrating is that it comes so close. Sarah Cronin

Cross of Love

Cross of Love

Format: Cinema

Dates: 17-22 December 2011

Venues: ICA

Director: Teuvo Tulio

Writer: Nisse Hirn

Based on a short story by: Alexander Pushkin

Original title: Rakkauden risti

Cast: Regina Linnanheimo, Oscar Tengströ, Ville Salminen

Finland 1946

99 mins

An iris closes in on a face and bursts back outwards. A landscape shot is split open. Figures bend as the screen is folded as if it were a page in a book. When Teuvo Tulio cuts a scene, he does so with grand gestures of assertion that verge on the absurd. Brazenly melodramatic, his edits are emblematic of his film language, where shifts in the narrative are signalled and character motivations marked with gaudy metaphors. His contemporaries criticised his exaggeration, reiteration and obsession with prurience; nevertheless, for admirers since, who range from fellow Finnish auteur Aki Kaurismäki to cult mavericks Guy Maddin and Rainer Werner Fassbinder, satisfaction has been derived from embracing Tulio’s kitsch brushstrokes, which are delivered with conviction.

A montage of tempestuous winds and angry waves: within seconds of the opening of Cross of Love (1945), Tulio makes sure we know discord will ensue. In this adaptation of Pushkin’s ‘The Stationmaster’, Riita, the daughter of a lighthouse owner, dreams of escape until a shipwrecked playboy lures her out of her father’s grasp and, like the waves, takes her away into the city. An all too recognisable set-up, the city is of course infested with putrid greed, corrupted codes and dangerous deeds that evoke von Sternberg (Underworld, 1927) and von Stroheim (Greed, 1924). Abandoned and lost, the innocent Riita turns amoral and amorous as she caves into a life of prostitution, a fallen woman í  la G.W. Pabst’s Lulu. Cross of Love follows the patterns of Finland’s post-war ‘problem films’, which warned their viewers of social horrors (at least Riita escapes syphilis, a common fate for the genre’s characters) and incorporates betrayal and hoodwinking antagonists, themes that were censored in wartime cinema. The moral decay of the city positioned against the idyllic glow of countryside fields was also typical of Tulio’s 1940s scenarios (The Way You Wanted Me, 1944), and only a slight departure from his pre-war ‘haystack dramas’, pastoral scandals rooted and trapped within their settings (The Song of the Scarlet Flower, 1938, and In the Field of Dreams, 1940).

Nevertheless, Cross of Love remains a standout and Tulio’s most impressive achievement. Riita’s plight is portrayed with a riveting sexual frankness that was remarkable for its time, and Tulio never shies away from full-frontal nudity or candid metaphors that barely conceal the lust that sinks Riita into the mud of the city streets. Just as Riita begins to lose control, she meets a young artist who asks her to model for a painting, which gives the film its title; depicting her almost nude and with her arms spread against a cross, Riita’s portrait more than evokes original sin and freezes her fall into a startling image: ‘we’re trying to capture the suffering…’ Deliciously delirious, the actress Regina Linnanheimo, whose unapologetic madness somehow elicits compassion, summons sincerity in Riita’s descent from luminescence to darkness. Occasionally, the music is so overpowering that Tulio abandons dialogue completely, instead allowing close-ups of Linnanheimo’s face to dance with Bach. At times uncomfortably florid, Tulio’s Cross of Love is melodrama at its most wildly excessive.

Julian Ross

I’m Still Here

I'm Still Here

Format: DVD + Blu-ray

Release date: 10 January 2011

Distributor: Optimum Home Entertainment

Director: Casey Affleck

Writers: Casey Affleck, Joaquin Phoenix

Cast: Joaquin Phoenix, Antony Langdon, Sean Combs

USA 2010

108 mins

Few mockumentaries have received as much media attention as I’m Still Here, although this is largely due to the manner in which the press was coerced into participating in the project: in late 2008, movie star Joaquin Phoenix announced that he was retiring from acting to pursue a music career, a statement that was swiftly reported by entertainment news programmes and the celebrity-obsessed blogosphere. Phoenix received Academy Award nominations for his performances as a Roman emperor in Gladiator (2000) and as country singer Johnny Cash in Walk the Line (2005), while maintaining independent credentials through his frequent collaborations with writer-director James Gray. If he had yet to achieve megastar status - an increasingly unrealistic expectation for any actor in a movie-making era dominated by special effects-heavy franchises - Phoenix was certainly well-known enough for his ‘retirement’ to fuel the rumour mill: was this a very public breakdown, or a hoax, or a genuine desire to try a different form of self-expression? The media further speculated on the actor’s professional shift when Phoenix performed his latest rap material at a Las Vegas club in early 2009, with his friend and brother-in-law Casey Affleck filming his set for a documentary project that would be titled I’m Still Here. Writing for the Chicago Sun Times in September 2010, Robert Ebert described the film as ‘a sad and painful documentary’, dealing with a ‘gifted actor who apparently by his own decision has brought desolation upon his head’. Ebert also noted ‘subtle signs’ that I’m Still Here may be ‘part of an elaborate hoax’.

The suspicions of Ebert and other critics were proved correct when Affleck explained the intentions of his collaboration with Phoenix in a number of interviews that followed the theatrical release of I’m Still Here; they wanted to explore the nature of celebrity, commenting on the relationship that both audiences and journalists have with stars in the era of new media and reality television. What their mockumentary actually observes is a breakdown in such relations, as Phoenix becomes increasingly isolated due to intense media attention. He begins the film by claiming to feel trapped in ‘a self-imposed prison of characterisation’ due to the mass perception that he is ’emotional, intense and complicated’, an identity that he concedes to creating through his choice of roles but one that he feels has been exaggerated through media pigeonholing. As he no longer wants to ‘play the character of Joaquin’, Phoenix abandons his acting career to record rap music, with Sean Combs producing his debut album and live performances scheduled in Las Vegas. Industry commentators do not wait to listen to any material before passing judgment, labelling this choice as career suicide, while ridiculing the ‘former’ actor’s increasingly unkempt appearance as Phoenix goes from svelte leading man to bearded rapper with noticeable weight gain. He becomes a laughing stock in Hollywood, alienates his ‘general assistant’ Antony (Spacehog guitarist Antony Langdon) and gets into a fight while performing to an audience that is more interested in capturing a falling star with their camera phones than in listening to his lyrics.

In retrospect, it is easy to see that I’m Still Here is a ruse, albeit a well-conceived one: scenes of Phoenix ordering hookers and snorting drugs are calculated self-destruction staples that are designed to shock, and interactions with other performers often feel contrived. Ben Stiller visits Phoenix at his Los Angeles home to pitch Greenberg (2010), suggesting that the ‘retired’ actor should play the supporting role eventually undertaken by Rhys Ifans, only to be accused of ‘doing Ben Stiller’ by Phoenix, who no longer cares for Hollywood pleasantries. With comedy star Stiller cast in his familiar straight man role to Phoenix’s imploding artist and dialogue that references Stiller’s earlier success There’s Something about Mary (1998), their meeting plays more like a scene from Curb Your Enthusiasm than a genuine conversation. The centrepiece of I’m Still Here is not Phoenix’s rap performance - we hear some of his material, but never a full track - but his now legendary appearance on the Late Show with David Letterman to promote his ‘final’ film Two Lovers (2008). It’s an exercise in awkward humour as Phoenix seems to be more interested in the gum in his mouth than discussing his work, only becoming slightly engaged when Letterman brings up the subject of his rap music. ‘I’d like to come on the show and perform,’ offers Phoenix, only for Letterman to deliver the put-down, ‘That seems unlikely’. Phoenix manages a few chuckles at the expense of the host, but Letterman gets the last laugh - ‘I’ll come to your house and chew gum.’

Phoenix disappears into ‘character’ as he becomes distanced from those around him due to media ridicule. Although he turns to music to escape the artifice of acting, Phoenix finds the rap world to be similar to Hollywood: Sean Combs states that both movies and music revolve around the circus of production, while the audience that Phoenix is trying to reach may change, but reactions to his celebrity status do not. He eventually retreats from public view, travelling to Panama to spend time with his father and, in the parting shot, disappears underwater while swimming. The three-word title of I’m Still Here recalls not only D.A. Pennebaker‘s classic Bob Dylan documentary Dont Look Back (1967) but also Todd Haynes’s I’m Not There (2007), a fictionalised deconstruction of Dylan’s ever-changing persona, with media reaction to Phoenix as rap star exemplifying a celebrity culture that now forbids such multi-faceted behaviour. In this respect, the process of making I’m Still Here had more impact than the completed film as it received a brief theatrical run that grossed a mere $568,963 worldwide, suggesting that the cultural and economic value of artists or celebrities as ‘public commodities’ is greater than that of their actual work. A clean-shaven, slimmed-down Phoenix would return to the Letterman show to discuss the film, thereby re-establishing his movie star identity through the promotional process. I’m Still Here is technically a mockumentary, but the manner in which its subject unravels due to media scrutiny makes it a painfully real portrait of a creative spirit in crisis.

John Berra